In the blues, raw is God. Raw-dog. Nasty, ugly stuff. Stuff you shield your kid’s eyes from. Stuff that makes the old lady faint. Stuff that makes you want to start drinking again. The North Mississippi Allstars have this rawness, evidenced from their incredible debut, Shake Hands With Shorty, and their explosive live shows. But from the get-go of 51 Phantom, it seems that this rawness has temporarily disappeared.
Now, just to be contradictory, I’ll admit that this is one rockin’ album. It starts with a bang, fizzles out for a few songs, then explodes again, like a complicated firecracker. The band really worked on these songs, polished them, and the effect is the same as watching Kurt Vonnegut do a Nike commercial, a potent mixture of sadness and happiness. The appeal is wider, the songs cleaner.
You want the group to succeed, you tell your friends you want to see them make it. You even almost convince yourself. The truth is, with a band this special, you don’t want them to change. You look to them like a mother looks to her sons, you want them to never grow up; you want them just the way they are, forever and ever. Songs such as “Snakes In My Bushes” sound like fawning love letters to the Black Crowes. “Mud,” the final song, is a strange bird — Slipknot and Mudvayne fans won’t be disappointed. “Lord Have Mercy” is the only song reminiscent of the sheer ferocity of the last album, but it is also the only song not written by folks in the band. Luther used to shout into the microphone. Now he’s singing 20 percent of the time and shouting 80 percent of the time, but that 20 percent hurts a lot. 51 Phantom is proof that the Allstars have many more tricks up their sleeves — some of which are more impressive than others.
E-mail Joshua Gross at [email protected].